Damocles’ sword over the head of Bangladesh

By Sadeq Khan

The incumbent Hasina regime has over the last four and a half years successfully thrown Bangladesh into an abyss of shattered image, crippled economy, rancorous politics, impugned constitution, corrupted judiciary, fruitless diplomacy, tyrannical potentate, rubber-stamp parliament, pervasive criminality, frozen public administration, police-state terror, low-key insurgency, and on top, a sharply divided social infrastructure. Right at the outset the first year of its tenure, began, by ‘political’ mishandling of a rebellion of BDR (paramilitary border security outfit) personnel leading to the tragic massacre of 57 accomplished army officers, with highly demoralising effect on the defence establishment and the national psyche.
The regime continued with disastrous effects on the macro-economic infrastructure by a series of scandals like share market bubble that devastated the capital market to a state of continuing morbidity, the Padma Bridge corruption conspiracy that spoiled our development partnership with World Bank led donors, the Hallmark defalcation exposing fraudulent practices that seriously damaged the banking system, and so on.
The regime also went on to politicise and disturb the discipline of all the state institutions, which have now been robbed of credibility in the eyes of the public across the board. The regime started the last year of its tenure by setting an example of its readiness to abuse the coercive power of the state by police, killing of 170 violent protesters on the streets in a week, end February-early March.
In April this year, a man-made disaster under misconceived ‘political’ motivation took place by the collapse of a eight-storey building housing five garment factories with several thousand workers at work, rescue work of survivors and bodies dead and wounded from under the ruins of which are still continuing, accounting for some nine hundred dead so far and hundreds dismembered in hospital. Then at dead of night on May 5, after a day of massive protests against government indulgence of anti-Islamic calumny, organised by Islamic scholars and their following from all over the country gathered at a government-appointed spot in the business district of Motijheel in the capital, the regime ordered a crackdown on sleepy sit-in protesters that has allegedly led to a real large-scale massacre, followed by violence and unrest paralysing the entire country.
On the 4th of May, The Economist on London reported on the garments factory-building disaster as follows:
“It was South Asia’s worst industrial accident since the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when a gas leak killed at least 3,800 people. In a few terrifying moments on April 24th a building that included a shopping centre and five garment factories collapsed in Savar, an industrial corner near Dhaka, the capital.
“The building was called Rana Plaza after its owner, Sohel Rana, a strongman of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League. He fled but was arrested four days later in Benapole, on the border with India, and has been charged with criminal negligence. Planning approval had been given for only five of the building’s eight storeys. Clothing and documents in the rubble suggest that buyers included European and North American brands such as Primark, Joe Fresh, Kik and Benetton.
“The rescue operation was a fiasco, with the area not even cordoned off. Tens of thousands of bystanders besieged the site, some entering the wreckage. Soldiers and firemen were present, but it was mostly left to locals to drag out survivors and corpses. At one point bystanders pelted volunteers with stones for making such slow progress, prompting police to use tear gas. Every day the stench of decomposing bodies grew.
“Foreign governments and the United Nations had offered help almost immediately. But Bangladesh’s rulers refused, prickly with national pride. The resulting lack of sniffer dogs or machinery may have cost lives. Worse, the calamity had been predicted. Cracks appeared in Rana Plaza the day before its collapse. Both the police and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), a powerful lobby, told the owner his building was unsafe but he ignored them and the factories stayed open. Workers said they had been pressed to show up.
“The industry is tied to the corrupt political system: at least 25 MPs have investments in the garment business.
“If it fails to put its own house in order, why should anyone else?”
Indeed, the resultant commotion in the European and US retail markets of Bangladesh readymade garments is likely to lead to significant loss of clientele and has already drawn serious warnings of possible cancellation or reduction of GSP facilities of Bangladesh in those markets. But Sheikh Hasina is unperturbed.
CNN interview
A CNN telecast interviewing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the subject was shown on the screen of the network as follows:
“Yes, there are some problems,” the Prime Minister said, but added that a committee has been formed to ensure the safety of buildings and workers.
(Interviewer) Christiane Amanpour, Emmy-winning news correspondent for CNN, pointed out that local officials predicted that the building could collapse after cracks appeared on its walls on April 23, and they urged workers not to re-enter it.
“You are very correct,” Hasina said. “Unfortunately, in the morning, the owners of the factories put pressure to labour to enter.”
She blamed the owners of the five factories as well as Sohel Rana, the building’s owner, and disputed the suggestion that their political connections could protect them. (In fact, Sohel Rana is a ruling party activist who was also planning to organise a pro-government political demonstration by the mobilised female garment workers in his building late in the day of the accident).
But the collapse of the building is only the latest in a string of fatal incidents that have beset the industry in recent years. A fire five months ago at a garment maker in another suburb of Dhaka killed at least 112 people.
Death of Aminul Islam
Hasina expressed little concern that international companies would stop doing business in Bangladesh as a result of the disaster. Investors have tapped into the Bangladeshi market not just because of its high-quality workers, she said. “They get cheap labour,” she said. “That’s why they come here.” (More than a year back, Aminul Islam, a labour rights activist who also promoted labour-management cooperation, was killed). Hasina denied that the killing last year of a labour leader signified that her government was hostile towards unions. Aminul Islam’s body, bearing signs of torture, was found four days after he disappeared in April 2012.
“Nobody knew that he was a labour leader,” she said. It was only after his body was found, she said, “that we came to know that he was a labour leader and he was assassinated.” (The case is unresolved and government security personnel are suspected of the killing).
The interview carried out via satellite by ace international correspondent and analyst Christiane Amanpour in New York and the Prime Minister in Dhaka.
CNN was unable to gain visas from the Bangladeshi government that would allow the network to send reporters to cover the country first-hand. But the prime minister disputed that assertion. “It is not true,” Hasina said. “We never stop any media to come to Bangladesh.” Asked about restrictions on coverage imposed by the visa office, she said, “Every country has these rules and regulations.”
The threat to $20 billion garment industry hangs like a Damocles’s sword, nevertheless.
On May 6, The Asian Human Rights Commission of Hong Kong issued a statement on the alleged massacre of Islamist protesters as follows:
“News reports from Bangladesh allege that a series of attacks on demonstrators have taken place, at around 3am today, May 6, 2013. The extent of the injuries and death is difficult to be ascertained at the moment. The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper, gave the figure of deaths as 5. However, several internet reports have mentioned that the number of deaths could be as high as 2,500 or more. Pictures of dead bodies have also been distributed over the internet. Major news channels in Bangladesh have been silenced. Two private television channels that were showing live pictures of the attacks upon the demonstrators were immediately closed down. The authorities have, later in the morning, imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, (a provision similar to declaring internal emergency) in the city of Dhaka, under which more than four persons are not allowed to converge in public places and the declaration absolutely prohibits public protest. Worse, the executive authorities could use deadly force against civilians under this provision. All forms of public gatherings, rallies and protests have been prohibited until the midnight today, May 6.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has learned that the security forces, including the Border Guards Bangladesh, the Rapid Action Battalion and the Police, started a massive crackdown on the demonstrators of the Hefazat-E-Islam early morning on Monday. According to unverified information the AHRC has received, a huge number of lives have already been lost. Numerous victims have been shot at close range by the state agencies. It appears that the international community stationed in Dhaka is fully aware of the brutal crackdown and the wanton extrajudicial execution happening within Dhaka and in the outskirts of the city.
“The AHRC does not agree with any of the demands made by the Hefazat-E-Islam. Our concern, however, is for the right of everyone to participate in protests. At all times the sacredness of the right to life must be respected.
The violence that is going on in Bangladesh must stop now. The international community has a moral as well as a legal obligation to intervene, which could save lives and could prevent the situation from deteriorating further. The United Nations must take all necessary actions, most importantly through the office of the Secretary General to bring an immediate end to the bloody impasse that has befallen upon the country.”
On May 7, BD Alert Network circulated a commentary on the same subject as follows:
“3,150 people killed in 10 days. (The culmination) happened like a nightmare. Between 500 and 2,500 protestors have been killed. The paramilitary forces, 10,000 Bangladeshi police officers and the notorious Rapid Action Battalion invaded the camps of hundreds of thousands of protestors while they were settling down for the night. The protest during the day numbered over 1.5 million.
Government forces fired live bullets in the dark of night, into crowds of religious scholars and students numbering 500,000 and were seen piling dead bodies into trucks. Before the forces moved in, two pro opposition TV stations were shut down, electricity was centrally switched off and the media was expelled as the midnight massacre was carried out. Hospitals and Madrassa have been raided continuously to hunt down protestors. Thousands of bullet ridden students are unable to afford treatment.
This slaughter comes 10 days after the April 24 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which has now exceeded a death toll of 650. The factory was illegally built by a crony of the ruling party, the Awami League. As reported by the BBC, The Bangladesh government refused international expertise and equipment, which greatly increased the death toll.
Bangladesh Prime Minister’s response to the building collapse? ‘Accidents happen.’
For the past three months, Bangladesh has been in the grip of protests, police killings and turmoil. The government has been condemned by International Human Rights organizations for showing absolutely no regard for human life, the protection of human rights or the rule of law. It is actively participating in state-sponsored terrorism.”
Despite such damning condemnation, the incumbent leaders are desperately sticking to their strategy of wiping out opposition, silencing critics, and confounding domestic public and foreign governments by misinformation. In their delusion of power, they are perhaps forgetting that it may be necessary for them to divine a safe exit plan, if they fail to resolve the stalemate over transition of power amongst other looming crises.